I’ve heard it often. So have many of my colleagues. NBC’s Bob Costas just heard it in spades.
Costas focused his halftime commentary a week ago on the horrific murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher.
The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, the day before, shot his girlfriend, drove to the training facility, and eventually shot himself. It was tragic. It was news. It certainly could elicit commentary.
Costas spoke for about 90 seconds, and mostly agreed with an online columnist who criticized our violent culture and said that if Belcher “didn’t own a gun,” he and his girlfriend would be alive today.
He never mentioned “gun control.”
He never said “Second Amendment.”
No matter. You bring up guns, you step on a landmine. Within minutes, Costas was being pelted on the Internet, and in the days that followed, it became a global hailstorm. He went on talk shows. He even called it a “mistake” to discuss that topic in a football game setting. But the more he explained, the more he was flooded by negativity. A Fox News person who called him “a sanctimonious ghoul.”
At the core of this was a sentiment that even became a headline in several places:
Stick to sports.
If only it were that easy.
Here’s the problem for folks in our positions. We’d stick to sports. But sports won’t.
We’d much prefer a world where the Tour de France was just a bicycle race, where Plaxico Burress didn’t shoot himself, where the showers at Penn State never saw anything worse than a towel flick.
We’d love a world where Barry Bonds was merely a home run hitter, where Josh Hamilton only chewed bubble gum, where Ohio State’s football players never sold a piece of clothing, where Mike Tyson respected women.
Don’t you think those who love the thrill of athletic competition – and I believe most sports journalists do – would rather cover a photo finish than a photo of Brett Favre’s genitals? Handoffs over holdouts? Dunking instead of doping?
I’ve been around this business a long time. I don’t know many who got into it to cover dirt.
But dirt comes with the job. Because real life doesn’t stop at the out-of-bounds markers. Sure, you could comment on the Belcher story and not suggest guns played a part. But Costas felt it was relevant. He’s not some apple-cheeked kid. He’s 60 years old, a TV veteran commentator. Whether you agree with him shouldn’t change his right to hold an opinion – especially in a segment where he is supposed to give his opinion.
But we are a knee-jerk society. When someone angers us, we feel obliged to yell back louder. It was sadly amusing to hear cable news commentators label Costas’s calmly toned words a “rant” – as they ranted like hyenas.
The truth is, in today’s world, demanding a sports commentator “stick to sports” is hypocritical. Are you sticking to sports when you say that? Or are you saying it because you disagree with his opinion? A Nebraska newspaper writer pummeled Costas, saying “just shut your trap and tell me who scored.” Does Costas tell him to shut his trap and talk about the corn crop?
Mike Royko wrote great pieces about politicians as well as athletes. Norman Mailer wrote great essays on war and on boxing. Tom Wolfe wrote as finely about racecar driving as about the space program. Jim McKay broadcast the Olympics and the Munich tragedy. Should they all have been told, “You’re one thing. Do nothing more than that.”?
Of course not. I wish, in this position, that I never had to deal with drunken-driving deaths, substance-abuse violations, gambling scandals, paternity suits, barroom brawls, suicides or the off-the-field behavior of everyone from Reggie Rogers to Pete Rose to Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick or Belcher.
But we have no choice.
Stick to sports?
This is sports.